Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department, Volume One
Henry Lee

CHAPTER XVIII.

THE British general, having received his supplies, moved from Cambden on the 8th of September, to accomplish the great object, which he had with much regret deferred. The conquest of North Carolina, before congress could bring another army into the field, was deemed certain; and would enable the victorious general to approximate Virginia, the devoted victim of the ensuing spring’s operations. During the winter he expected to restore the royal authority, to lay up magazines, to provide all the necessary horses for the next campaign, and what was very desirable, to fill up his ranks with young Americans. Elated with these flattering expectations, Cornwallis took his route through those parts of the state, distinguished for their firm adherence to their country. The main body moved first to the Waxhaw’s settlement, and next to Charlotte, with an intention to proceed to Salisbury.

Corresponding with the main body on its left, lieutenant colonel Tarleton traversed the country, west of the Wateree, at the head of his legion and the light infantry. Still nearer to the frontiers, lieutenant colonel Ferguson marched with his corps of provincials. The route of the army lay intermediate to the two settlements of Cross-creek and Tryan county; with both of which, favoring his views, his lordship wished to open safe and direct intercourse. Lieutenant colonel Tarleton united with the main body, in its camp at the Waxhaws, where Cornwallis had halted.

The approach of Cornwallis compelled colonel Davie to fall back upon Charlotte, and his abandoned position was comprehended in the British camp. Davie took post at Providence, on the Charlotte road, twenty-five miles from the Waxhaws. So exhausted was the country, that in this well improved settlement, the British general was straitened for provisions, and obliged to send his light party in every direction; for whose safety he entertained no apprehension, knowing the humble condition to which his successes had reduced us. Colonel Davie was not unapprised of his lordship’s wants, and mode of supplying them; and having ascertained that, while the main body of the enemy was encamped on the north of the Catawba, some of the light troops and the loyalists occupied the southern banks of that river, some distance on the right of the British position, he determined to beat up their quarters in the night. With this view he decamped on the evening of the 20th of September; and taking an extensive circuit, turned the left of Cornwallis, and gained, unperceived, the camp of the loyalists. They had changed their ground, falling nearer to the light troops, and now were stationed at Wahab’s plantation. Davie nevertheless persevered in his enterprize. Being among his friends, he was sure to receive accurate intelligence; and he had with him the best guides, as many of his corps were inhabitants of the very settlements; and their property, wives and children, were now in the possession of the enemy. He came in sight of Wahab’s early the next morning, where he discovered a part of the loyalists and Briiish legion, mounted, and arrayed near the house, which, in this quarter, was in some degree concealed by a cornfield, cultivated to the yard. Detaching major Davidson through the cornfield with the greater part of the riflemen, with orders to seize the house, he himself gained the lane leading to it. The enemy was completely surprised; and being keenly pushed, betook themselves to flight. Sixty killed and wounded were left on the ground; and as little or no resistance was made, only one of Davie’s corps was wounded. The colonel, having collected ninety-six horses with their equipments, and one hundred and twenty stand of arms, retired with expedition; the British drums beating to arms in the contiguous quarters. Captain Wahab, the owner of the farm, spent the few minutes halt in delicious converse with his wife and children, who ran out as soon as the fire ceased, to embrace their long lost and beloved protector. Sweetly passed these moments; but they were succeeded by the most bitter. The British troops reaching the house, the commanding officer yielding to diabolical fury, ordered it to be burnt. A torch was instantly applied, and Wahab saw the only shelter of his helpless, unprotected family wrapped in flames, without the power of affording any relief to his forlorn wife and children. “These were times which tried men’s souls.” Davie made good his retreat, and returned to his camp at Providence, having marched sixty miles in twenty-four hours. On the evening of his return, general Sumner and Davidson arrived with their militia, amounting to one thousand men, enlisted for a short period. This body, with the small corps under colonel Davie, not two hundred, constituted all our force opposed to the advancing enemy.

Four days after the affair at Wahab’s, the British general put his army in motion, taking the Steel creek road to Charlotte. This being announced to general Sumner by his light parties, he decamped from Providence, and retired on the nearest road to Salisbury; leaving colonel Davie with his corps, strengthened by a few volunteers under major Graham, to observe the movements of the enemy. Hovering round the British army, colonel Davie took several prisoners during the evening, and reached Charlotte about midnight. This village, standing on elevated ground, contained about twenty houses, built on two streets crossing each other at right angles. The court-house, constructed with stone, stood at the intersection of the two streets. The common, on the right of the street leading through the town, in the direction of the enemy’s advance, was covered with a growth of underwood, and bounded by the gardens and other inclosures of the village: on the left was an open field. Colonel Davie, being informed of the approach of the enemy, and relying on the firmness of his troops, determined to give them an earnest of the spirit of the country into which they had entered. Dismounting his cavalry, who, in addition to the sword and pistol, were armed with muskets, he posted them in front of the court-house, under cover of a strong stone wall, breast high. His infantry, also dismounted, with Graham’s volunteers, were advanced eighty yards in front, on each side of the street, covered by the inclosures of the village. While this disposition was making, the legion of Tarleton, led by major Hanger, Tarleton being sick, appeared on the common, and formed in a column, widened in front to correspond with the street, and flanked by parties of light infantry. The charge being sounded, the column of horse moved slowly, giving time for the light infantry to clear its flanks by dislodging their advanced adversaries. The moment these parties engaged. Hanger rushed along the street to the court-house, where Davie poured in his fire, and compelled him to recede. The dragoons fell back hastily, and were rallied on the common. Meanwhile our infantry, on the right of the street, were driven in, although bravely resisting; upon which, colonel Davie recalled those on our left, who still maintained their ground. The British light infantry continued to advance, and the action was vigorously renewed on our flanks. The centre reserved its fire for the cavalry, who, now returning to the charge, met with a repetition of their first reception, and retired in confusion to their former ground. The British infantry persevered; and having gained Davie’s right flunk, he drew off from the court-house, and arrayed his gallant band on the eastern side of the town. Cornwallis now came up to the legion cavalry, and chided, by reminding them of their former reputation. Advancing a third time, they pressed down the street, and ranged with the light infantry, who were still urging forward on our flank; when meeting with our brave corps, now mounted, they received as usual a well aimed fire, and were again repulsed. The flank companies of the seventy-first and thirty-third regiments advanced to support the light infantry; and Davie receded from the unequal contest, for a long time nobly supported, and retreated on the great Salisbury road. An attempt was made by the cavalry to disturb our retreat, which succeeded, so far as to drive in our rear guard; but stopped the moment the supporting company opened its fire. Lieutenant Locke and five privates were killed, and major Graham and twelve were wounded. The enemy lost twelve non-commissioned officers and privates killed; major Hanger, captains Campbell and M’Donald and many privates were wounded.

Lord Cornwallis established a post at Blair’s mill, which he confided to major M’Arthur; and advanced towards Salisbury, in order to preserve his communication with Cambden. Thus the further he advanced the more his field force was necessarily reduced. This inconvenience an invading army must feel, and a judicious opponent will turn it to his advantage.

Lieutenant colonel Ferguson, still pursuing his course, reached Gilbert town; and was there informed, by his friends, that a large force of eastern militia was in motion. The British general had selected this excellent officer to command the only detachment from his army, which could be exposed to serious resistance. The principal object of the expedition was to excite the loyalists, in that quarter, to rebel openly, and unite with the British army. While Ferguson was endeavoring to effect this purpose, he was advised by lord Cornwallis of an assault on Augusta, with directions to intercept, if practicable, the assailants on their return. Augusta was commanded by lieutenant colonel T. Brown; who had been in the British service, previous to the war, and resided in Georgia. Pleasing and sensible, he was popular; and possessing influence with the Indian tribes, bordering on that state, from official connexion, he was dangerous. With a view to preserve control over the affections and conduct of the Indians, the British government not only continued the established custom of bestowing annual presents in arms, ammunition, blankets, salt, liquor, and other like articles precious to the forester, but in consequence of the war had much increased the annual gift.[note 76]

When Georgia fell, many of the most virtuous and distinguished citizens of that state, (as did afterwards those of South Carolina) fled to their brethren in the West. The most prominent among these voluntary exiles, was colonel Clarke, who employed his time and mind in preparing a sufficient force to enable him, on the first opportunity, to return and renew the contest. Vigilantly watching every occurrence, he was soon informed of the arrival at Augusta of the annual Indian presents. The desire to recover Augusta, always ascendant in Clarke’s breast, now became irresistible. He called forth his comrades, and expatiated on the rich harvest of reward and glory within their reach, and the facility of obtaining it at that moment. His arguments were successful; and the warriors of the hills shouted for battle. No time was lost by their active leader in preparing for the enterprise. The wallets were filled with provisions, the guns cleaned, bullets moulded, and a scanty supply of powder was distributed out of their scanty magazine.

These were the simple preparations of our hardy mountaineers for battle. A lesson, pregnant with instruction, to all military commanders. The nearer an army can be brought to this unencumbered and alert condition, the more is its effective capacity increased, the better are the public resources husbanded, and the quicker will the war be terminated. Two hours only were occupied in getting ready to move, which followed as soon as the horses could be brought from pasture and accoutred. The grass of nature gave subsistence to the horse, while the soldier feasted on the homely contents of his wallet, made and filled by his wife or mother.

Marching through friendly settlements, intelligence was gained, guides were procured, and accessions of strength acquired. Having reached the confines of the enemy, the leader halted, made his last arrangements, and issued his final orders. Then, with the velocity of an eagle, he pounced on his prey; but missing it, recurred to the slow and systematic operations which require patient vigilance and prevent hazard. The watchful Brown, informed of the gathering storm, was not surprised by its approach. Augusta being untenable with his weak force, he retired toward Garden Hill with his garrison of one hundred and fifty men, a few Indians, and two small brass pieces. In front of the latter position, he was vigorously attacked by Clarke, at the head of seven hundred men; but, under cover of his artillery, at length dislodged his enemy, and forced his way to the hill by the point of the bayonet. So soon as he had gained the hill, colonel Brown began to fortify himself in the best possible manner: being determined to hold out to the last moment, in order to give time for colonel Cruger, who commanded at Ninety-six, and was informed of Brown’s situation and views, to relieve him. Among other expedients to form suitable defences, colonel Brown put in requisition all the bales of cloth, osnaburgs, blankets, &c. found in the store at Garden Hill, and converted them, with the assistance of rails and palling, into a breastwork, proof against musketry. Clarke, nevertheless, persevered in his attempt to bring the enemy to submission; which he would have certainly accomplished, by availing himself of the two pieces of artillery, gained in the first conflict, had not the ammunition belonging to them been nearly exhausted. Deprived of this aid, he resorted to other expedients; and at length succeeded in depriving the garrison of water. But, unluckily, his adversary was no less fertile in mental resource than intrepid in battle. To remedy this menacing evil, colonel Brown ordered all the earthen vessels in the store to be taken, in which the urine was preserved; and when cold, it was served out with much economy to the troops, himself taking the first draught. Disregarding the torture of a wound in his leg, which had become much swoln from exertion, he continued booted at the head of his small gallant band, directing his defence, and animating his troops by his presence and example. Thus Brown courageously supported himself until the fourth day, when colonel Cruger appeared on the opposite banks. Colonel Clarke immediately withdrew, leaving his artillery behind, and disappointed by the invincible prowess of his enemy of a reward which, with less perseverance and gallantry, he might justly have expected to obtain.

Ferguson no sooner received the order of Cornwallis to attack the assailants of Augusta on their return than he drew nearer to the mountain, prepared to attack Clarke as soon as he reached his vicinity. While waiting to execute this object, he heard that a new enemy was approaching him; for the very purpose of proceeding on the same enterprise, in which Clarke had just been foiled. A numerous assemblage of rifle militia had been drawn together from Kentucky, the western country of Virginia, and North Carolina; and were in motion under colonels Campbell, Cleveland, Williams, Sevier, and Shelby, towards Augusta; when hearing of Clarke’s repulse and Ferguson’s expedition, they relinquished their enterprise on Brown, and turned against Ferguson. Reaching Gilbert town, from which place Ferguson had lately retired, they selected one thousand and five hundred of their warriors, who followed the British partizan, bent upon his destruction. Ferguson, apprised of their pursuit, took post on the summit of King’s mountain; a position, thickly set with trees, and more assailable by the rifle, than defensible with the bayonet. Here he was overtaken by our mountaineers, who quickly dismounted, and arrayed themselves for battle. Our brave countrymen were formed into three divisions, under their respective leaders, and coolly ascended the mountain in different directions. Colonel Cleveland first reached the enemy, and opened a destructive fire from behind the trees. Ferguson resorted to the bayonet: Cleveland necessarily gave way. At that instant, from another quarter, colonel Shelby poured in his fire; alike sheltered and alike effectual. Upon him Ferguson furiously turned, and advanced with the bayonet; gaining the only, though immaterial, advantage in his power, of forcing Shelby to recede. This was scarcely effected, before colonel Campbell had gained the summit of the mountain; when he too commenced a deadly fire. The British bayonet was again applied; and produced its former effect. All the divisions now returned in cooperation, and resistance became temerity. Nevertheless, Ferguson, confiding in the bayonet, sustained the attack with undismayed gallantry. The battle raged for fifty minutes, when the British commander received a ball, and fell dead. Deprived of their leader, the fire of the enemy slackened, and the second in command wisely beat a parley, which was followed by his surrender. Three hundred were killed and wounded; one hundred regulars and seven hundred loyalists were taken, with one thousand and five hundred stand of arms: lieutenant colonel Ferguson being provided with supernumerary muskets, to arm such of the inhabitants as might repair to the royal standard. Our loss was trifling in numbers; but among the killed was colonel Williams of South Carolina, who had joined those gallant patriots, with his adherents, from the district of Ninety-six, and was among the most active and resolute of this daring assemblage.

Although Clarke failed in the reduction of Augusta, his attempt led to the destruction of Ferguson; and with it, to the present relief of North Carolina.

Return to Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department